Thursday, May 29, 2014

True Confessions . . . by Sue Townsend (Penguin Books 1989)

We retreated back to Moscow. We arrived at 6.30 in the morning. Even at this early hour Russia was on the move; the station was jam-packed full. We passed through a massive waiting room where every plastic chair was occupied, yet nobody spoke. Christopher Hope was much affected by this. It was in complete contrast to the milling, shouting crowds outside with their ungainly luggage and wool-wrapped children in tow. There was one policeman at the door – could he alone have cowed hundreds of people into complete silence?

We went to the Bolshoi and saw the most exquisite dying swan, performed by Ms Larissa, the toast of Moscow, who was reputed to be rushing towards sixty years of age. Her arms vibrated like piano wires, they shimmered, then as the violins soared and swooned she sank to the floor in the final gesture – it was perfect and lovely and I shall always remember it.

I arranged to meet my translator, but he mixed up Tuesday with Thursday so it was not possible. He is translating a diary. As Mr Bennett said, ‘Friday: Got up, went to Sunday school.’

We were invited to Kim Philby’s funeral and said we’d go, but the day was changed and we’d flown to Lvov in the Ukraine. We met more writers and admired the beautiful town and visited the cathedral which was crowded with old women, many on their knees. The sadness was tangible. It was Ascension Day and a kindly old woman began to explain the story of the Ascension to Alan Bennett.

Alan listened as though the story were completely new to him. Then an unkind old woman intervened and ordered him to uncross his legs. She then turned on the kind old woman and berated her for talking to us. Later, strolling round the town, we saw the unkind woman praying at the locked gates of a church. She looked very unhappy. We met the mayor of Lvov, a big, handsome man, very conscious of his duty to preserve and renovate the many lovely buildings with which the town is blessed. Alan Bennett is thinking of retiring to Lvov. We met a dirty, ragged man who told us about the concentration camp which used to be situated to the west of the town. Hundreds of thousands of people died there. I asked our official guide about the old man. ‘He is a fanatic,’ she said. ‘He has spent his life since the war studying the fate of the Jews. He is a Jew himself,’ she added, ‘a professor of history.’ She disapproved of the ragged old man.

The writers of Lvov were particularly kind and hospitable, and we lunched in some style to the sounds of a string quartet – all girls who blushed when we applauded. The conversation at Messrs Raine, Bennett and Bailey’s end of the table had turned to sex. Their laughter attracted the attention of the wife of the chairman of the Lvov Writers’ Union. I said, ‘They are talking about sex.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘All say’s, little do’s.’

Quite a devastating remark from such a mild-looking woman.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Raid and the Blackest Sheep by Harri Nykanen (Ice Cold Crime 2000)

Raid drove while Nygren slept in the back seat.

Nygren had folded up his wool overcoat beneath his head and curled up his thin legs. His hands were tucked against his chest. One knee was thrust against the back of the driver's seat and Raid could feel it pressing against the small of his back. Nygren's dark-blue, nearly black sport coat was unbuttoned, and a burgundy tie with white polka dots spilled over the edge of the seat.

Nygren was approaching sixty. His face was lean and furrowed with an inch-long scar at the left corner of his mouth. With his blond hair combed straight back to the nape of his neck, Nygren almost looked boyish. The expensive watch on his wrist topped off his stylish attire.

Nygren wore a tranquil expression, like that of a man who does only what he believes in.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mr. Bevan's Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State by Sue Townsend (Chatto & Windus 1989)

I am told by my graduate friends that I haven't missed much. They go on to describe their last-minute cramming, their worthless thesis (button manufacturing 1797-1831), but they know and I know that, at the very least, they can write a standard essay, they can marshal their thoughts into some sort of order, and they can come up with a reasonable conclusion. Unfortunately I can't do this. I enjoy reading other people's essays (stumbling across Orwell's Inside the Whale and Other Essays was a particular teenage joy, it out Elvis'd Elvis), but I can't write a well-structured essay myself. So, in this pamphlet, I have fallen back on the traditional working class method for expressing ideas — the anecdote, or what is now called 'the oral tradition' (which is only a fancy term for working class people talking to each other but not bothering to record what they've heard). I'd better explain that my own background is working class. I use the term easily and unselfconsciously, although I am aware that in 1989 the very words 'working class' are buried in a mine-field over which we all have to tiptoe so very carefully.

Slowly, over the years, our language has been debased, so that terms like 'working class', 'socialism' and 'the Welfare State' have become pejorative and individuals using the words in conversation now tend to put them in parenthesis, either by a certain emphasis of tone or by wiggling the fingers in the air to denote that the speaker is aware of certain ironies — that the words are anachronistic in our technological age.

I am extremely proud of my background and the more I travel and read about history and the roots of what we call civilisation, the prouder I become of this huge international class. I know that they were the builders of the cathedrals, the carvers of furniture, the seamstresses of the gorgeous clothes in the family portraits. They grew the hothouse flowers, they wove the carpets, bound the books in the libraries and gilded the ceilings. They also built the roads, the railways, the bridges and the viaducts. And what is more they were fully capable of designing such marvels. No one class has a monopoly on vision and imagination. The only thing the working classes lacked was capital.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Cotton-Pickers by B. Traven (Allison & Busby 1926)

The thought that from now on I would be working with a murderer day and night, eating from the same pot, perhaps sleeping in the same room, this thought didn’t occur to me at once. Either I’d sunk so low morally that I’d lost all feeling for such niceties of civilization, or I’d moved so far ahead of my time and so far above the moral standards of the day that I understood every human action, and neither took upon myself the right to condemn nor indulged in the cheap sentimentality of pity. For pity is also a condemnation, even if not so recognized, even if it is unconscious. Should I have felt a horror of Antonio, a revulsion against shaking his hand? There are so many thieves and murderers on the loose with diamonds on their fingers and big pearls in their neckties or gold stars on their epaulettes, and decent people think nothing of shaking hands with them, but even regard it an honor to do so. Every class has its thieves and murderers. Those of my class are hanged; others are invited to the president’s ball and complain about the crimes and immorality of workmen like me.

When you have to struggle hard to get a crust of bread, you find yourself down in the mire, floundering among the scum of humanity.